It turns out that there is an untold story behind the “discovery” of the famous Hockey Stick graph by Mike Mann and his colleagues. It is an excellent example of how science works, worthy of repeating, say, in a science classroom.
Anthropogenic Climate Change is very serious business. And, therefore, there has been far too little humor applied to communicating about this problem. Mike Mann and his co-author Tom Toles have started to backfill that gaping hole in the collective effort to bring the most important existential issue of our time to everyone’s attention.
Hurricane Matthew wasn’t just a storm enhanced by, or affected by, or influenced by, climate change. Matthew is the new poster storm for climate change and catastrophe, not because it Destroyed America (it didn’t, America got lucky, though Haiti did not) but because of several unique characteristics of that storm.
So, I did an interview with Mike Mann, even as Matthew was just about to pounce on Florida, in which we discuss various aspects of Atlantic hurricanes, and Matthew in particular.
We also discuss long term variation in the climate record, those squiggles in the surface warming trend on top of which regular warming is imposed.
We discuss Mike’s journey to the Hockey Stick, which I’m pretty sure is a story that has not been covered on a blog post or podcast or anything like that.
And, we discuss Mann and Tole’s new book, “The Madhouse Effect.”
Michael Mann has a specialty or two. Climate simulation modeling, analysis of proxy data, the study of global teleconnections, Northern Hemisphere surface temperatures over historic time scales, etc. A while back, Mann’s research interests and activities converged, I assume by some combination of design and chance (as is often the case in Academia) with a key central question in science. This question is, “What is the pattern of surface warming caused by human effects on the atmosphere, including changes in greenhouse gas concentration and other pollutants?”
Mann and his colleagues essentially solved that problem in 1998, with the publication of a study looking at tree ring data, ice cores, and direct measurements of the atmosphere and the ocean surface, to estimate “surface temperature” of the atmosphere in the northern hemisphere. NASA, NOAA, and other agencies already had a temperature record going back into the 19th century, about a century of data. But since human effects started way before that, and since there is a lot of non-human caused variation in the system, the only way the basic pattern of surface warming, and the relative role of human effects, could be ascertained was by extending that record back several more centuries. Mann and his colleagues did that.
What they did was to turn this graph:
Into this graph:
Ironically, that first graph is from the oil industry, a report by ExxonMobil to be exact. Scientists generally knew that greenhouse warming was a thing, but these ExxonMobil scientists hid their research in order to … well, you can guess their motivation. (And you thought they were just about oil!)
So, that should have been about it. A major question was clarified and science marches on.
But there were two other things that happened after that. One makes total sense, and is a good thing. The other is mad. Mad as in madhouse.
The first thing was clarifying the science even more. Mann and colleagues worked mainly on the Northern Hemisphere because that is where much of the data lived. They were not using all the proxy data that would eventually become available. The record had to be pushed even farther back in time. The direct surface measurements needed to be reanalyzed a few times by different people, using different approaches, in order to understand it better. And so on.
Also, climate needed to march along a bit, as it turns out. The years since 1998 or so have seen dramatic changes in surface temperature, and dramatic effects of warming.
So that all happened, and our understanding of climate change is much refined and pretty darn good, with a few interesting and important questions remaining. But we know enough to confirm several times over the existential nature of the problem.
But something else happened at the same time.
Your curmudgeonly old Uncle Bob got mad at the climate data because, well, it seemed like it was Environmentalism which is all Hippie and Communist and stuff. Your cousin the developer and your other cousin who works at the power plant got mad because it became clear that modern civilization’s present day technologies for making and using buildings, making and using vehicles, and making and using energy, were the cause of an existential crisis. So they got mad about being blamed, even though they weren’t really being singled out. And all the energy producing corporations, stock holders, and their … well, their wholly owned souls such as members of Congress, Republicans, talk show hosts, and, to bring it full circle, your curmudgeonly old Uncle Bob, all got mad because addressing climate change would ruin the American Dream.
The American Dream, by the way, is this: You are a poor slob living in dirt. Them something happens and the dirt is gone but somehow you are still filthy. Filthy rich! Every American would become filthy rich if only … if only Mike Mann would shut up and go away.
So, this second thing that happened involved intense harassment, often bought and paid for, of climate scientists, active opposition to truthful and honest science, and the organic development of what Mann and his coauthor Toles refer to as a “Madhouse.”
One of the topics Mann deals with in this new book, that has not been dealt with enough, is the Breakthrough concept, especially as related to geoengineering. To quote from the text:
Many of those who advocate against taking action when it comes to dealing with the underlying problem—our ongoing burning of fossil fuels— have instead turned to possible technosolutions for counteracting climate change that involve other massive interventions in the Earth system: geoengineering. In some ways, for the free-market fundamentalist, geoengineering is a logical way out because it reflects an extension of faith that the free market and technological innovation can solve any problem we create, without the need for regulation.
Unsurprisingly, even many rather level-headed captains of industry, such as Bill Gates, have embraced the concept along with techno-Pollyannas, such as Bjorn Lomborg and the Breakthrough Institute. Price on carbon? Nah, the market doesn’t need it. Renewable energy? It’s a pipe dream. Massively interfering with the Earth system in the hope that we might get lucky and offset global warming? Yeah, that’s the ticket!
One of the important Stages of Science Denial (and there is a whole chapter on the stages in The Madhouse Effect) is to assume that this problem will be solved with one great technological advance.
We might have some helpful technological advances, but most of the key advances have already happened and now need some fine tuning. The laws of physics can’t be broken just because we want them to be. It takes energy to separate Carbon from Oxygen, and we get energy by combining the two (if we start with the right molecules). We can’t suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere and make it solid without either spending more energy, or violating the laws of physics. And at the scale we are talking about here, we can’t store the gas in some safe place. The bottom line: We have to keep the fossil fuel in the ground, and use the widely available, abundant, clean, inexpensive, and by the way, very cool alternative sources of energy that already exist but that don’t happened to be owned by the Koch Brothers.
This book serves many purposes. It includes an overview of the basic science of climate change and human caused global warming. It has a compendium of many of the key science deniers, and a description of the well known taxonomy of science denial (“It’s Not Happening!”, “OK, It’s Happening but It’s Natural”, “It Will Take Care Of Itself”, “It Will Be Good For Us”, etc.). The authors discuss the war on climate science, and of special interest because it isn’t discussed enough, the prospects (which are poor) and the problems (which are very serious) of geoengineering as a means of addressing climate change.
And, everything is well documented with detailed notes and references at the end, including some to my own writing on the topic!
This is not like a cartoon guide to a topic (though those guides are great), but is mainly text richly illustrated with Tolees’ often ironic and biting cartoons. The text is well written and very accessible but at the same time authoritative.
And the book will prove its own need. Just visit the amazon reviews of this book and you’ll see, I suspect (give it a few weeks for the deniers to mass on the borders of reason and charge in).
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in climate change and global warming. Teachers discussing this issue in class may want to have a copy of it handy, especially to prepare for denialist charges and complaints, but also, for the basic science. Activists will find the material on what to do about climate change, at several levels, interesting and helpful.
The award winning climate scientist Michael E. Mann and the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Tom Toles have fought at the frontlines of climate denialism for most of their careers. They have witnessed the manipulation of the media by business and political interests and the unconscionable play to partisanship on issues that affect the well-being of millions. The lessons they have learned have been invaluable, inspiring this brilliant, colorful escape hatch from the madhouse of the climate wars.
Through satire, “The Madhouse Effect” portrays the intellectual pretzels into which denialists must twist logic to explain away the clear evidence that man-made activity has changed our climate. Toles’s cartoons collapse counter-scientific strategies into their biased components, helping readers see how to best strike at these fallacies. Mann’s expert skills at science communication aim to restore sanity to a debate that continues to rage against widely acknowledged scientific consensus. The synergy of these two commonsense crusaders enlivens the gloom and doom of so many climate-themed books–and may even convert a few of the faithful to the right side of science.